November 7, 2010

When do we want to see actors pretend to go through what actually was a horrible experience that happened to real people, when we also know exactly what happened?

ALOTT5MA says:
Suggest a form of physical suffering you'd rather endure this weeken than spending $10+ to watch James Franco reenact what hiker Aron Ralston did....

I feel like we've had a bunch of films like this lately -- United 93, A Mighty Heart (the Daniel Pearl story), World Trade Center and others I'm sure you can name -- dramatic films based on real-life events where I can understand why filmmakers believed this was a story worth telling, but where the story itself is not one I have any interest in spending my entertainment dollars/time to see. And yet we (pretty much) all saw Schindler's List, which somehow became a cultural obligation in a way that none of the others -- not even the remarkable story of United 93 -- did.
Are we ghoulish to want to see more than the mental picture we had when we read about it in the press? Is there something different about a filmed depiction of an incident in which human beings did something evil to other human beings — "Schindler's List," "United 93" — and man-against-nature survival tales?

One of my favorite TV shows is "I Shouldn't Be Alive," which features reenacted survival stories like "Trapped Under a Boulder." And one of my favorite movies, "Touching the Void," is the same thing. In these stories, individuals have made a decision to go out into the wilderness or climb mountains and they get into trouble because of their own bad decisions or over-optimistic ideas about the dangers that are out there. Then they need to deal with the consequences. I think it's kind of right-wing to watch dramas like that. What if you leave the comforts of civilization and go out where you will have to be self-reliant? In many of these scenarios, the characters begin with the idea that they want to prove something to themselves by doing something difficult out where there will be no one to help them if things go bad.

And that's the story in the movie ALOTT5MA is talking about, "127 Hours."



That's the new movie by the director of "Slumdog Millionaire," which was a fictional story showing terrible things happening to children. Why do we make up stories of causing children to suffer and entertain ourselves with that? ALOTT5MA seems to think there's something very different about subjecting ourselves to a story where we know what the terrible thing is. Now, in fiction or nonfiction stories, we might know or not know what's going to happen. Are you more willing to watch movies and TV shows where you don't know what the particular horrors are? Would I have avoided seeing "Slumdog Millionaire" if I knew the exact torture that I'd see inflicted on children? Does my answer change if I know that things like that are really done to children in India?

And then there are the movies that depict real historical events, like the Holocaust and 9/11. We know the horrors, but in a rough, general sense. The point of these movies is to allow us to enter the individual experience of the human beings whose lives were part of the familiar history. We see those movies, if they are good enough, because of the way they give us deep psychic understanding of what happened. There's that quote (attributed to Stalin), "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." A good movie might get you to the tragedy by putting you inside one person within the millions. But it might not be good. It might be a commercial exploitation of the emotions you already have. You may feel that you're obligated to care about these phony scenes full of actors because this really happened to real people. There will be celebrities in Nazi uniforms hamming up how evil they are. Then it's a travesty. Frankly, that's how I felt about "Schindler's List."

31 comments:

former law student said...

Schindler's list was a story of rescue, of hope in the worst imaginable situation, a story little known until the movie was made.

The movie we don't want to see is the Anne Frank story. We know what happens to Anne.

EDH said...

There's that quote (attributed to Stalin), "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." A good movie might get you to the tragedy by putting you inside one person within the millions.

Go easy, he only hurt 10,000 people

Our legal system is grounded in notions of due process and reasonableness. Unfortunately, new research suggests a disturbing paradox: People tend to assign less punishment for harm to more people. When asked to judge fraud, people reacted more harshly to the offender if he had defrauded three people than if he had defrauded 30 people. Likewise, when asked to judge the culpability of executives of a food processing company who had knowingly shipped tainted food, people reacted more harshly if there were two victims than if there were 20 victims. People were also more willing to go along with a coverup if there were more victims. These effects were attenuated — though not reversed — if one of the victims was specifically identified. Nevertheless, an analysis of US jury verdicts in toxic liability cases revealed the same pattern: a significant negative correlation between the number of plaintiffs and punitive damages.

Nordgren, L. & McDonnell, M.-H., “The Scope-Severity Paradox: Why Doing More Harm Is Judged to Be Less Harmful,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

[Third item in today's Boston Sunday Globe Uncommon Knowledge Column]

bagoh20 said...

Seems to me that this story is different in that he is alone and not dealing with anyone's cruelty, but fate can be one cold S.O.B. too. There is no one to hate or be angry with. No haunting questions of why. I think about his story often, since I usually hike alone in the wilderness. I wonder if I could do what is required, and always tell myself of course I would, but many people fail that test and I'm not sure. I'm not sure what's scarier: that I would or that I might not. Having no good options is realization that must be a special moment that takes a while to accept.

PatCA said...

Producers are always asking "what's at stake?" about screenplays.

In this case, it's his very arm or his very life. So that's why these movies get made.

edutcher said...

Back when movies were good, stories like that were done all the time. It was about showing people what courage and honor and all the other virtues were about.

I don't think it's that bad a thing and, to disagree with fls, you do need to see Anne Frank's story. It exemplifies what Edmund Burke said about all that is needed for evil to happen is for good people to do nothing.

Anne B. said...

Former law student said:

``Schindler's list was a story of rescue, of hope in the worst imaginable situation, a story little known until the movie was made.''


I second that. Also the fact that it was shot in black and white, plus the fact that the story of the Holocaust is well known (we've all seen those pictures) puts a little more distance between the viewer and what's happening on screen. It was harrowing, but I didn't lose it until that moment at the end ... where the surviving Jews are walking off across a field (?), and suddenly the b/w changes to color, and the actors playing the Jewish survivors are replaced by the real people.

"Slumdog Millionaire," though - I had to leave after about 40 minutes. The cruelty and brutality on display (even though "it's only a movie") was making me ill.

shoutingthomas said...

The answer is simple: We are bored to death and out lives are devoid of action.

The real dramas that used to occupy people are gone from our lives. We don't have to hunt and fish and garden or face starvation.

So, we want to experience vicariously the lives of people who actually do face significant danger and who actually have something happen in their lives.

We live in what Henry Miller so aptly called "The Air Conditioned Nightmare."

You should have met my late wife, Myrna, Ann. She was born in the shanty towns of Olongopo right on the edge of the Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines. By the end of her life she was training manager of a huge corporate law firm, with authority over all its East Coast offices.

She was a different kind of person entirely. Her life from birth was all action, drama, adventure... all the things that The Air Conditioned Nightmare deprives us of. Her personality was bigger than any you can imagine. She was absolute fearless.

More things happened in her life in a week than happen in your life in a decade. Those things were good and bad, but never boring.

This safe, boring life that we lead deprives us of some things that we really need.

bagoh20 said...

Although his story hits close to home for me, I don't want to see it. Too intimate, too personal, too painful in my imagination. I get the willies just thinking about it. Because of stories like that, I always carry pain killers with me when hiking, though I doubt they would help much.

Class factotum said...

individuals have made a decision to go out into the wilderness or climb mountains and they get into trouble because of their own bad decisions

I rolled my eyes throughout "Into the Wild." The guy thought he was getting down with nature and the poor, but all he had to do at any point was to call his parents and he would have been rescued. It doesn't take a lot of guts to reject Society if you have well to do parents who have already paid for your college education and who would do anything to keep you safe. If he really wanted to prove himself, he could have told them he would pay his own way through college.

Robert said...

Personally, I definitely shouldn't be alive. I went through a horrendous ordeal a couple of years ago -- poisoned by some medication - and every doctor said I would die. When I didn't after a thousand twists and turns everyone kept telling me what a great book it would make, etc, but I knew it wouldn't and still know that. Survival stories never work because there's no antagonist. "Nature" or "Fate" make very poor villains.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

I have been fascinated by war pictures since I was a little kid. I always worried that this was voyeuristic since I never was even in the military, much less in combat. I finally realized that what was interesting was what men do in extremis. How do you place your bets when the only wager is the highest one possible? I think this goes a long way to explain war in general. Some men, and a few women, are driven to find out how they themselves will behave when the chips are down.

Anne B. said...

``[Myrna] was a different kind of person entirely. Her life from birth was all action, drama, adventure... all the things that The Air Conditioned Nightmare deprives us of.''

So, shoutingthomas ... did she like action/adventure/thriller movies, or did she say, "Let's watch a nice musical comedy, because I've had enough drama in real life?" :-)

The Crack Emcee said...

One Day In September and Into The Void are two of my favorite pictures - precisely because you know what happens, and there's still tons of drama and surprises, because you didn't know it that well.

Haven't seen Slumdog Millionaire because 3rd World poverty doesn't interest me that much (I've seen it, first hand) but Schindler's List was great. You know what I hate, though? Liberal WWII movies, like The Reader or Seven Years In Tibet, that try to get me to side with the Nazis. It's n ot that I'd find it impossible to do so - some people just got caught in some wartime shit - but I ain't feeling it from no liberal perspective. If you really want me to dislike your film, try manipulating me like that.

shoutingthomas said...

So, shoutingthomas ... did she like action/adventure/thriller movies, or did she say, "Let's watch a nice musical comedy, because I've had enough drama in real life?" :-)

Myrna loved martial arts and cowboy movies because they were full of action and fights. But she hated staged fights and really only liked the movies in which the actors were capable of doing their own stunts.

For instance, the movie "Kill Bill" outraged her because the sissified white actress (Uma something or other?) who clearly had never been in a fight in her life was supposed to be able to defeat Lucy Liu, an Asian actor with actual martial arts training. Myrna considered this so unbelievable and deliberately false that she turned it off.

She loved fights and would go out of her way to find them, too.

She had a hard time understanding why other people, including me, looked to avoid them.

bagoh20 said...

When I was younger, me and a good friend of mine would often backpack into the mountains for the weekend. Provisions always included multiple intoxicants.

One time in winter in deep snow and ice while standing on a cliff side by side admiring the view and taking hits off a bottle of Captain Morgan, my feet suddenly just slipped on the ice right out from under me. I plunged down the face of the cliff sliding on my 60lbs of backpack at high speed for a few hundred feet, digging and clawing at branches and rocks to no avail. Eventually I slammed into a large downed tree across my path, just before I would have plunged over the edge to a certain death from a fall of about 800ft.

I spent the next 2 hours cutting up my clothes and anything I could find to fashion a rope and climbing back up by throwing it around trees and pulling myself up inch by inch. The whole time, my friend and I discussed him hiking 1 day back and getting help. I insisted I could make it, though I was seriously not sure if I could. The embarrassment and cost (money) of a rescue was even scarier. I eventually did make it up, and the rum was waiting for me. We slept there on the snow that night. I was badly bruised and in a lot of pain, but the next day we continued on. It's one of my favorite memories.

My friend died last year of a heart attack at 46 in front of his TV. He quit doing much, and we wasted our last years of opportunity by never adventuring together like that again. I still do alone, but always think of him. Life is short no matter what you do with it.

I was thinking the other day: what advice would I give myself if I could talk to me 30 years ago? I decided the single best thing would be: "Pay attention. You don't want to miss anything."

bagoh20 said...
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bagoh20 said...
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ricpic said...

ST's explanation sounds plausible but I still can't see myself as one of the scores of thousands who will plunk down 10 bucks to watch a man cut his own arm off. Nothing highlights the differences in people more than what would give me nightmares for a month is a minor frisson to others.

bagoh20 said...

Damned Blogger. It told me my post was too long, which it is, sorry. Then it posted it twice anyway. Rage against the machine, it will lie to you.

Ankur said...

I didn't see "The Reader" as trying to get me to side with the Nazis. The fact that Nazis had a human side shouldn't be surprising to anyone - they WERE human beings. Yet, regardless of whatever humanity they possessed and demonstrated - their overarching acts were deeply inhuman, and evil.

I don't think dehumanizing them helps anybody. I think their evil should be recognized as a something humans ARE capable of, and dealt with as such.

William said...

Here's the difference between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Ever literate person has read two or three novels by Dostoevsky, but every literate person has also read a novel by Tolstoy two or three tiimes. Balls with princes and princes with balls are inherently more fun to read about than gin soaked peasants.....Through the wonder of Netflix, I get to see every favorably reviewed movie. I saw Schindler's List. It was a great movie, and I will never see it again. I saw Jaws, not such a great movie, three or four times. I'm not sure what this proves. Maybe like the director in Sullivan's Travels we find that the escape from the banality, squalor, and horror of life is the highest achievement of art and entertainment. I am saddened and wearied by the fact that Scarlett Johansson has never had a nude scene, and that life is passing by.

Ankur said...

Very poignang story, Bagoh20. Thank you for sharing it.

William said...

Good story, bagoh20. A wilderness sunset is worth the occasional bear mauling or amputated limb.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

Very poignang story, William. Thank you for sharing it.

ricpic said...

I'd like to see Scarlett Johansson in a nude scene as long as she didn't play it self-consciously...which of course she would.

yashu said...

On the topic of movies about "individuals who've made a decision to go out into the wilderness and they get into trouble because of their own bad decisions or over-optimistic ideas about the dangers that are out there" and then "need to deal with the consequences"; characters who "begin with the idea that they want to prove something to themselves by doing something difficult out where there will be no one to help them if things go bad"--

I highly, highly, highly recommend Deep Water. You can watch the whole thing in parts on YouTube. I saw it for the first time about a week ago; I haven't been so moved, fascinated, gripped, affected, haunted by a documentary in a very long time. Practically nothing in it is re-enacted; the footage is real (most poignantly, taken by the man himself).

I'm surprised I hadn't heard the story of Crowhurst before-- I don't recall any mention of him when that 16-year-old girl round-the-world sailor was lost for a while. Anyway, it's a story so beyond any fiction in its tragic complexity: the crazy confluence of character, will, hubris, timidity, chance, accident, luck, weakness, pride, courage, cowardice, portents, deception, the ridiculous, the sublime, terror, honor, shame, madness, and of course unfathomable Nature…

And there are 2 amazing characters fatefully intertwined in the story-- Crowhurst & Moitessier.

This documentary really got to me, stays with me, keeps coming back into my thoughts.

Youngblood said...

Tyrone wrote:

"Some men, and a few women, are driven to find out how they themselves will behave when the chips are down."

When Ridley Scott made Blackhawk Down, he insisted that it was intended as an anti-war film. After all, hadn't he shown the horrific effects of combat in excruciating detail? Wouldn't that turn people off to war?

Watching it after September 11th, while I was making my decision to go into the Army, the violence didn't have its intended effect. I wasn't saying, "ZOMG! I could die violently!" but "Could I do what these men do?"

Godot said...

Why do we make up stories of causing children to suffer and entertain ourselves with that?

I blame Charles Dickens.
___

Cedarford said...

Sometimes, those movies of unfortunate events are worth making.
"Alive!", movie about the Uraguayan rugby players (and the book) - worth it.
Certain documentaries of disasters, illuminating.

Maybe the real issue is not covering something, but overcovering at the expense of other significant disasters, battles, genocides, etc...that get little time in books or media.

There were other battles in the Civil War besides Gettysburg. WWII was not All About the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, D-Day.
300 terrible hurricanes besides Katrina.
Lots of other people murdered besides Matthew Sheppard where "hatred" played a part.

HKatz said...

There will be celebrities in Nazi uniforms hamming up how evil they are.
There are some productions that feel phonier than others. At some level yes, it's all actors in front of us but there are directors and actors who convey the material more honestly and with more understanding of it, and there's less of a sense of them trying to just tug at our heartstrings in a cloying way or be melodramatic or just portray evil by 'hamming up how evil they are' or show off their own acting skills.

It's also not necessary to show everything. Things can be suggested or left off-screen, and still be horrifying. I don't like how in a lot of movies these days the camera has to zoom in on every bone crunching and every spurt of blood.

yes said...

The Schindler's List movie softened things up for the viewer; the camp inmates looked too well-fed. The realistic Shoah fictionalization has not been made.